'With no way out'

The new 'Struma' museum opens in Beersheba to tell the story of a Romanian Jewish refugee ship destroyed by a Soviet torpedo in 1942.

January 22, 2009 13:49
'With no way out'

struma 88 248. (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)

It's easy to repeat the adage that everything happens for the best, but when Aryeh Reiter came upon two boys breaking windows in his beloved Struma shul, it didn't seem that way at the moment. "I caught the boys in the act," says Reiter, who as a Romanian immigrant founded the shul 47 years ago. "When I realized they went to a neighborhood school, I decided the best thing to do would be to talk to their teacher. I went to her, explained what the boys had done, and suggested that if she told them a little about what the 'Struma' was and why it was important, the boys might not be inclined to break our windows." "What's 'Struma'?" the teacher said. "I knew then we had to do something," Reiter says. "That the boys didn't know, that's one thing. But that the teacher didn't know, that's something else altogether." Reiter and his fellow congregants began the transformation of a part of the elegant and stately Struma shul, an Eastern-European style building, into a museum that would explain in words, photos and exhibits exactly what the Struma was: a Romanian Jewish refugee ship that in 1942 was set adrift in the Black Sea and then torpedoed, killing 777 of the 778 men, women and children aboard. Due to the changing character of the neighborhood where the Struma shul stands, the site is ideal for the addition of a museum. Located in Beersheba's older Aleph neighborhood, off Rehov Sokolow just behind Magen David Adom, the tree-lined street is quiet, yet close enough to the business section of the city to be easily accessible. "Over 20,000 people of Romanian descent live in Beersheba," Reiter says. "When I came from Romania in 1951, it was all residential here with lots of immigrants from Romania. In the late 1950s when we started to build the shul, I went door to door to raise the money. Everyone was poor, but almost everyone gave me a few coins - not just Romanians. Jews of all kinds built this shul, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike." For several decades, the congregation flourished. "During the High Holidays, we didn't have enough seats," recalls Reiter's daughter, Chavi Reiter, who's now married and lives elsewhere in Beersheba with her family. "There was always something to do - classes, kids programs and great holiday celebrations. But my generation grew up, went into the army and married. Even if they returned to Beersheba, they didn't move back into the old neighborhood. Now the congregation is very small, so we could afford to give up part of the seating." An ingenious overhaul began with the walling off of a portion of one side of the women's balcony. Visitors enter the museum as would passengers on a ship, by climbing a white outdoor staircase, dotted all along with red and white buoys. Entering the building itself, they step onto an area resembling a ship's deck, with light pouring through windows shaped like portholes. A magnificent stained-glass window with the museum's slogan, "With No Way Out," depicts a giant hand forcing a tiny broken boat into the sea. The story of the Struma begins with the situation in which Romanian Jews found themselves beginning in the early 1920s. "We focus on the Struma ship, but there were several refugee ships that left Romania during those years. The only way anyone can understand why people would be desperate enough to buy passage on these battered old boats, even a decaying old cattle boat like the Struma, is to show them a little bit about the pogroms that were taking place at the time," Reiter says. Well before Hitler geared up for the Holocaust, Romanian Jews suffered. The earliest of the big pogroms took place in 1922, with the formation of the Iron Guard, the infamous "Legionnaires" who ultimately became Hitler's Romanian henchmen. In 1938, Aristide Blank, a Jewish banker, wrote in his memoirs that the question of the times was whether the Romanian government would accept the Legionnaires solution - "to throw the Jews into the sea" - or the alternative proposed by Romania's then-prime minister Armand Calinescu: force the emigration of 50,000 Jews a year. Emigration was preferable, of course. But where would the Jews go? Romanian leaders expected that the Jews would go to Palestine, but the British, who held the Palestinian Mandate, imposed strict quotas on the number of Jews who could enter. Day by day, the museum traces the increasingly desperate situation facing Romanian Jews. In a letter dated January 28, 1940, Meir Ebner, director of the Romanian immigrant's organization, pleaded with Winston Churchill, pointing out that many of the Jews who wanted to emigrate from Romania were young pioneers, skilled people who would be helpful to the British war effort. Several days later, Chaim Weizmann added his own plea, asking Churchill to at least permit the established quota of 40,000 Jews to enter. Churchill denied both requests. The museum displays photos of Romanian Jews being chased by a Romanian rabble and Jews being herded into concentration camps, which were intended to be temporary stations where Jews would be held pending transport east. But tens of thousands of Jews died of hunger, exhaustion, cold and disease - or were killed in the process of being robbed. In one day alone, 12,000 were murdered and buried in a common grave. Records show that in just five Bessarabian camps, 80,000 Jews were admitted but only 55,867 are recorded as being transported east. Some 25,000 died there. Between 1940 and 1941, 150,000 Romanian Jews were killed, most of them by Romanians. The pressure increased. Staying in Romania was no longer an option, but escaping overland was equally dangerous. Even if they managed to bribe someone for a transit visa, they still had to pass through countries under German control. Ultimately, escaping by water, sailing the Black Sea to Palestine - where they might have managed to be smuggled ashore, trying to avoid the British - seemed the best option, even if it meant trusting their lives to a battered old boat like the Struma. Jewish agents set out to buy whatever ships they could find, but all seaworthy vessels had been conscripted for the war effort. Only vessels deemed unfit for use could be found - like the Makedonia, an old cattle ship anchored in Bulgaria. Zionist agents examined it and noted that the engines were in terrible shape, but thought perhaps it could be towed by another ship. They bought it - the details of the purchase have been lost - and as the situation became increasingly desperate, the idea of towing it was also abandoned. With no way out, Jewish refugees had already sold everything they had to book passage. The Makedonia, which became the Struma, was built in 1867 in Newcastle. Several versions of the provenance of the ship exist, one which says it sailed the Danube during World War I and was sunk in Sulina. It resurfaced in 1938 and was purchased by a Bulgarian company called Struma. The boat was 46 meters long and six meters wide. It had no cabins, no bathrooms and no dining room. Most passengers knew they would have to sleep in shifts - even though several who had paid the exorbitant sum of 350,000 lei for their tickets (as compared to standard fare of 200,000 lei) had been assured they'd have a "cabin." The passenger list grew and grew. Intended to carry 350-400 passengers, the Struma ultimately allowed 778 on board. It was first scheduled to sail in June, 1941, then sequentially postponed to October 8, November 21, and November 24. It finally departed the Bucharest port on December 7, 1941 and arrived in the Romanian port of Constanta a day later. There, the passengers spent four days being "inspected," a bureaucratic process which robbed them of everything that hadn't already been stolen. Who boarded? A Yizkor wall of the museum lists their names and ages, and, for many, a photo. They're a handsome group, most of them young adults. The best of official records available lists 768 Romanian and Polish Jews, plus 10 crew members, three of whom were Jewish. Among them were 145 families, each with one to three children. There were nine passengers over 61, and 151 under the age of 21. In all, 76 percent were between 16 and 40. Almost immediately after leaving port, the Struma's engines died. The ship spent three days at sea before being towed into Istanbul by a Turkish tugboat. The tugboat service came at a price - its crew took wedding rings from anyone who still had them. Once in Istanbul's harbor, the Struma couldn't leave because the engines were dead. It couldn't remain in port, because sanitation was non-existent, and there was no food or water. Turkish officials refused to allow anyone to disembark so the passengers were unable to summon help. Ultimately the local Jewish community provided minimal supplies of food and water at a considerable cost to themselves because food was rationed in Turkey and supplies were minimal. The Struma lingered in the Istanbul port for 74 days. The lack of food and water, coupled with the winter cold, was exacerbated by the constant threat of epidemic, even as a yellow flag of quarantine flew overhead. Passengers were told not to move around - the ship was so seriously overloaded that if a number of them happened to move to the left or right at the same time, the ship would tip. As unrest turned to rebellion, the Turks acted. On February 23, 1942, Turkish officials towed the Struma, with all its crew and passengers, out into the Black Sea and set it adrift. With no engines, the ship was abandoned to its fate. At 9 a.m. the following morning, the Struma's ordeal ended. As the ship lay nine miles off the Turkish shore, a Soviet submarine, SC 213, launched a torpedo that hit the ship and blew it up, sinking it almost immediately. Although a considerable number of passengers were thrown free and found debris to keep them afloat for a time, only one man, David Soltiar, age 20, survived the frigid winter water of the Black Sea. One of the most remarkable of the museum's offerings is a 10-minute filmed interview with Soltiar. A Jew of Russian origin, he'd been in school in Paris when his father - in Bucharest, concerned about the war - summoned him home and ultimately paid his passage on the Struma. Soltiar had been asleep when the torpedo hit and was thrown into the water. According to Soltiar's testimony, the lower part of the ship was metal and sank immediately, leaving hundreds of bodies adrift. He saw a wooden beam, a part of the deck, and managed to cling to it, as did a crewman. "We talked, sang and shouted until the small hours and we feared that if we would fall asleep our bodies would freeze," Soltiar says. "Then the officer could not handle the cold. In the morning I found that he had died and I remained the only survivor. I can't explain why I lived and no one else did. I don't know." Soltiar describes the terror, the screams, the dying. More than 24 hours later, Soltiar was spotted by Turkish fishermen. They hauled him up, took him to a hospital, after which he was imprisoned for two months in a Turkish jail. Once released, he took a train to Syria and finally made it to Haifa. Today Soltiar lives near Portland, Oregon. One of the most interesting exhibits in the museum is a montage of contemporary newspaper coverage of the event. Most of the stories were inaccurate in one way or another, except for the account in The Palestine Post (known today as The Jerusalem Post). The Post's headline reads, "Refugees suffering on board Hell's Ship: The Tragedy of the Struma." Part of the problem in commemorating the Struma Affair, as it's been called, resulted from the Turkish government's decision to embargo all commentary. Records were destroyed, officials ceased talking, and no official information was available, which means that independent sources of information were used, many of which contradicted each other. With all doors closed to official commentary, the story of the Struma didn't take hold in the public mind for several weeks. Once it did, it captured the attention of politicians and the public alike. Even Albert Einstein held forth. In a letter dated March 11, 1942, he wrote, "The callous disregard of human life and the suffering which sent the Struma victims to their deaths is the symptom of a cancer that gnaws at our character, and we have to exterminate it not only to avoid further tragedies but to avoid moral perversion." Great Britain took a beating for their part in the affair. Justine Wise, wife of Zionist leader Stephen Wise, wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, seeking her intervention in having Britain change its policy and allow more Jewish refugees into Palestine. In the letter signed "As ever, Justine," she asked the first lady to see what could be done. In a letter dated March 9, 1942, Mrs. Roosevelt referred Wise's letter to the Undersecretary of State, Sumner Welles, adding her own comments. She found the Struma affair "perfectly shocking." "This is cruelty that cannot be expressed in words," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote. At the time, David Ben-Gurion was emphatic. "We must not keep quiet about the Struma issue, not because we are Zionists and Jews, but because we are human beings." Still, the story of the Struma is not well-known. Soltiar is philosophical. "A long span of time was necessary until people realized that the Struma is, in fact, a meaningful part of history," he said. The good news is, since the museum was established, no more windows have been broken in the Struma shul. The Struma Museum is open to the public. For more information call (08) 627-1789.

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